Referendum rules ‘must be updated ahead of any Border poll on Irish unity’

A sign with a message against the Brexit border checks in Larne, Co Antrim. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

John Downing

Rules on conducting referendum campaigns “are badly out of date” in Ireland, north and south – and must be updated in good time for any border poll on the future of partition.

That is the key finding of a major new study on the question of any all-Ireland referendum on possible reunification which was conducted by a panel of 12 Irish, British and USA academics.

The study concludes that any “united Ireland referendum” will need meticulous planning on how it should be carried out – and what would happen afterwards.

The study was carried out under the aegis of the constitution unit of University College London and the academic panel stand well back from most of the complex and divisive political issues, focusing mainly on procedural matters.

The academics conclude that a border poll, as provided for in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, is not inevitable but could well happen in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum and a potential rerun of the Scottish independence vote.

The academics’ report, which is published today, lays huge stress on the need for preparations in good time for any such border poll. This must be driven by the London and Dublin governments and also involve all relevant groups in Ireland and Britain.

The authors note the acrimonious fall-out after the June 2016 UK-wide Brexit referendum with retrospective rows about funding and procedures to police fair play. Their report raises serious questions about the reliability of current referendum procedures in both the UK and Republic of Ireland jurisdictions, expressing doubts on campaign finances, rules and procedures, advertising and the role of the governments.

“The rules for referendum and election campaigns are badly out of date in both the UK and Ireland, and urgently need to be strengthened. This would be particularly important for referendums on the momentous unification question, where voters must be protected from misinformation, and have access to high-quality information,” the report warns.

“The process as a whole must be fair, and its administration rigorously impartial,” they add.

Other crucial issues which must be planned for include any wording for a referendum question, which the authors suggest could well be different in both jurisdictions. But even with different use of words the question must be consistently and clearly framed – also allowing for the likelihood of ballot papers including English, Irish and potentially Ulster-Scots.

The authors also note that the Good Friday Agreement allows that “50pc-plus one” would be enough to decide the issue. “But the ethos of consensual politics should be upheld as far as possible,” they add by way of warning.

They also warn that it would be “highly unwise” for referendums to be called without a clear and agreed plan for the processes of decision-making to follow the voting.